The TEF: Does one size fit all?

Entrance to The Royal Society

Source: ©RPMartins

This was the question being pondered at a panel discussion at the Royal Society earlier this week. The room was filled with teachers, lecturers and researchers from various (predominantly southern) UK higher education institutions (HEIs), gauging from those who commented and posed questions to the panel.  “The exam question”, as speakers kept referring to it, was posed in reference to the recent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed in the government’s green paper on Higher Education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice.

The TEF seeks to apply an evaluation process to UK HE teaching in a similar way that the REF seeks to for Research in HE.  The resultant ranking can then be used as a criterion for the distribution of government funding and resources.  The proposed TEF would consider several metrics or “proxies” for teaching quality, balanced by institutional evidence to provide a context for the metrics. To some this and the other proposals in the green paper are more in a long series of actions that has progressively led to the marketisation of universities.

However, none of the panel speakers in that evening’s quorum really argued against a TEF, necessarily.  Instead, they focused on the question of whether a uniform approach could be applied to the mixture of institutions that make up UK HE. Bahram Bekhradnia, one of the panel speakers and President of HEPI, argued for a framework that could better assess teaching because  despite widely held assumptions about the quality of teaching quality in the UK, that there was a great variation in the amount of time invested (in preparation for and delivery of) that teaching.  A sentiment he echoed when answering one of the audience’s questions on whether a TEF was even needed, as things were indeed just fine at [their UK HEI].


Maddalaine Ansell, CEO of the University Alliance and the second panellist spoke about the great diversity in approaches to teaching in UK HE, and that any TEF had to remain true to the “light touch” assurances in the green paper, and that a resulting good reputation for teaching was in itself good enough.  She also suggested that any proxies focus on employment destination (that students take after graduation), retention and continuation (through to completion of studies) and student satisfaction metrics.


The final panel speaker was Professor Sir Martin Taylor, Warden of Merton College Oxford, who began by speaking of how TEF could be an opportunity for good teachers to share their practice amongst their peers in HE. However, he too questioned whether metrics could be simply applied across such a varied landscape, and suggested that the contextual evidence that institutions will provide will be essential in understanding those metrics.  He ended on what was amongst my favourite comments of the evening:


Any framework that attempts a comprehensive evaluation of HE teaching is almost by definition a complicated exercise.  Some who argue against it saying think that it has a chance to make the situation at those institutions that are already in poor shape even worse. One sentiment that was raised several times was that of the ‘holy-grail’ of metrics: Learning Gain, while at university, being perhaps the most informative metric to try to collect while at the same time being nearly impossible to get right at every institution across the UK, using some sort of one-size-fits-all approach.  Another heavily echoed sentiment was the importance on such a framework keeping to its “light tough” promises, both in terms of its administrative burden and costs to prepare, as well as the repercussions it imposes on HEIs who do not score well.  One of the selling points to the 2014 REF was that it was meant to be less of a burden than its 2008 RAE predecessor, and as it turns that its costs were underestimated.  As to the light touch of the consequences of a bad TEF return,

The consultation on the green paper remains open until 15 January 2016.  A brief review of the other proposals up for consultation can be found at the UUK blog.  There is no shortage of electronic column inches that detract from the green paper proposals, and QM principal, Simon Gaskel, commented that the QM-Senior Executive are preparing an official response to the green paper and other proposed reforms in UK HE teaching and research.


About ruipiresmartins

I'm a researcher developer for postdocs and research staff at Queen Mary University of London. Prior to that, I was an EMBO Fellow at the Gurdon Institute (University of Cambridge), studying Embryonic development and a PDRA in the Institute of Bioengineering (QMUL) studying nuclear and chromatin architecture in embryonic stem cells.
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